April is National Sexually Transmitted Disease Awareness Month. Throughout the month, there will be events held, lessons given, and materials distributed to encourage people across the United States — straight, gay, married, cis, trans, rich or poor — to practice safe sex. All will be encouraged to get tested for STDs. At a time when the practice of safe sex, including condom use, seems to be declining, this education is very important. But what does it have to do with Judaism?
Getting tested for STDs is a mitzvah — simple as that. It’s good for your health, it’s good for the community, and it protects people. It’s also far more of a mitzvah than anything to do with modesty — and it’s necessary even if your sexual activity is “halakhically approved.” Although, like other communities, we Jews can be a bit squeamish when talking about sex, we need to have honest conversations about our sexual behavior. And getting tested is part of that.
By “getting tested” I mean a routine and regular screening to check for STDs. Sometimes this involves a blood sample (eek!), and sometimes it involves a urine sample (eek!). If the lab test detects sexually transmitted infections, you can seek treatment and preventative measures to keep from infecting others. Most of the time, your result comes back “all clear” — but that still means you need to practice safe sex. And, depending on your profile, it still means getting tested again down the road — no matter how frum or proper your sexual practice is, and even if you only have safe sex.
Let’s be frank: Being Jewish does not protect you from getting STDs. We need to talk about how to protect ourselves and know our statuses. What’s more, the poorest in the United States, including many Jews, are the most likely to lack access to resources for sexual health and for getting tested, or even information about STDs. Not only should we get tested, but we should help others have access to sexual health resources too.
Modesty and concerns about proper sexual behavior are terrible excuses for avoiding this discussion. It is a public ideal of many Jewish organizations that Jews a) only have sex with Jews in b) traditionally prescribed ways within c) monogamous marriages or relationships. And d), we, in our tzniut, do not talk about it! But anyone can tell you that a), b), c) and d) are not the whole story, and we know it. And STDs “know” it too.
It is not going to suddenly encourage people to become less modest or more promiscuous if we talk about STDs and encourage people to get tested for them, and to be educated about safe sex. People are having sex already. Why not actually encourage people to live the Jewish value of caring for the sick and taking care of one’s health?
There’s also the myth that STDs happen to other communities, not to our own Jewish one. That’s a lie. Witness our own shock and horror that STDs were transmitted to children in Haredi communities through the circumcision practice of metzitzah b’peh, or that HIV/AIDS continues to be passed to our youth. Denying the reality of STDs in the Jewish world is an insult to the hard work of activists like Scott Fried, a Jewish, HIV-positive health educator and advocate, and of the LGBT synagogues that have cared for thousands of Jews living with HIV/AIDS and other STDs.
The fact that we stigmatize those who live with STDs doesn’t help. If we cannot provide a path for our friends, brothers, sisters, lovers, parents and children with STDs in the Jewish community, how are we supposed to expect people to get tested to see if they have them too? We need to remind folks that there is no shame if their test result does not come back “all clear.” Our narratives of purity and “good Jewish values” do not correlate with proper behavior here.
Underneath the veneer of nice Jewish boys, we are a community with sex lives like any other people. We have sex like them, and sometimes with them. We can get STDs; we can get sick from them; we can die from them. Consistent testing and safe sex benefits us as much as anyone, and makes our Jewish communities stronger. And it also makes it easier to include those among us who do have temporary or life-long STDs.
It’s okay to be nervous about getting tested. We live in Jewish communities that shame our sexual behavior, in a world that wants us to have constant sex yet monogamous sex, but never talk about what that entails. We stigmatize those with STDs, yet feel discouraged from doing anything about that ourselves. We are sometimes squeamish about needles and peeing in a cup. It’s not only normal to be nervous about getting tested, it’s almost expected. But it is so necessary, and can bring about so much good.
And, if it’s a comfort, Judaism backs you up. Maimonides says that to protect your own health is “among the ways of God,” as the obligation is set out in Deuteronomy; Rashi says this also applies to protecting others’ health. Even though these rabbis may not have approved of certain sexual behaviors, we can follow their example about preventing the transmission of STDs.
It’s not just healthy or important to get tested. It’s a mitzvah.
Jonathan Paul Katz is a civil servant and writer in New York City, and author of Flavors of Diaspora. This article has no connection to his place of employment.